The New Year is a good time to reflect, a good time for manifestos too. At the back end of 2015 there seemed to be a lot of talk on two topics. First, we saw some negativity towards wine bloggers from some of the more senior members of the wine writing fraternity (using that word deliberately). At the same time, a few writers, especially in North America, were asking questions about the future of wine writing, and wine criticism. I think the two subjects are linked, and I’ll tell you why. In this first part I’ll tell you why I think animosity towards, and criticism of, wine bloggers is misplaced. In part two I will tell the wine critics why I think much wine writing is dull and outdated, and where the way forward lies. As a clue, it doesn’t involve the tasting note as we know it. Nor scores. I didn’t say it wouldn’t be controversial.
The Internet, and the Wine Blog as part of that, has revolutionised the way people read and learn about wine. The old criticism of this democratised space has always been that you can have anyone spouting forth on wine, and we just don’t know how much knowledge they have. How do we trust the wine blogger? Wine writing used to be a small, closed shop. Highly regarded individuals had all the print sources sewn up – book deals, newspaper and magazine space. Occasionally, a newcomer appeared. Jancis, and Robert Parker, were both new kids on the block once, hard as that is to imagine.
After a brief proliferation of wine writing in the 1980s and 1990s, on a scale never seen before, many of these opportunities to write about wine sadly dried up, along with some fine newspaper wine columns. So those who had made it found even less work to go around than before. Many of the most prominent took their readers into the new realm of cyberspace. Jancis was without doubt the most successful in terms of critical acclaim, via the wonderful Purple Pages. Robert Parker went from wine guru to Internet brand as well. But established writers like Clive Coates (Burgundy), and John Livingstone-Learmonth (Rhône) also migrated some content to their web sites in order to supplement their print work.
Then along comes the wine blog. It was, to be fair, a natural extension of what some of the most prominent wine writers had created, as the Internet went mainstream. Successful web sites, with their tasting notes, articles and discussion forums, proved there was, and is, an appetite for wine on the web. At first, a few highly knowledgeable individuals merely took part of that format and ran with it. Jim Budd‘s Loire expertise via Jim’s Loire, Chris Kissack‘s Loire and Bordeaux knowledge via The Wine Doctor, and Wine Terroirs (Bertrand Celce), the first place I began to read about the natural wine movement in France, were just three. The wine blog was born.
Perhaps the exemplar of successful wine blogging has been Wine Anorak, Jamie Goode. With his scientific background, and easy writing style, he was eventually able to give up the day job and go full time. He’s now considered one of the major wine influencers in Europe and beyond. Books and judging wine competitions, along with a column in a national newspaper, supplement a web site which includes one of the most readable blogs on wine.
But for every blogger of Jamie’s stature, there are several more people writing without the same deep knowledge of the subject. Some are aware of their limits and are just doing it for fun, others perhaps not. None of us has the right to ignore the charge of vanity. But I don’t think the professional wine critics who are so exercised by the proliferation of wine writing on the Internet can tar a whole genre with that brush. Readers are perfectly capable of working out who has a deep knowledge to share, and who merely has a passion for the subject, with perhaps more to learn.
What I think has changed in wine over these past few years, and has perhaps gone unnoticed by some of the wine writers, is how the market for wine is splitting. When I was younger, if you became interested in wine, you became interested in the classics. People bought fine wines from a relatively small wine world, compared to today. This was without question true before California and Australia kicked off the New World wine revolution.
Now, those classic regions, at their best, are producing wines which only a relatively small cross-section of society can afford to buy, whether to drink or to invest in. This hasn’t stopped younger wine lovers developing a passion for the subject. Lucky for them, this has coincided with the greatest single effect of that New World wine revolution. Wine growers all over the world have seen that if you make good, interesting wine, you can sell it at a profit, and at the same time gain great satisfaction, perhaps even fame, from doing so. I don’t write about the outer reaches of the wine world in order to satisfy those who seek the obscure. I do it to highlight the fantastic wines which are increasingly being made all over the world, from all sorts of grape varieties once considered useless – because no one had thought to devote any care and attention on them before.
People new to wine have grown up in a world where the Internet and Social Media are at the centre of their daily lives. My son and daughter can hardly imagine the world I grew up in – three TV channels, no mobile phones, Internet, or Facebook. By contrast, I wonder how many young people today use a library, or in some cases even, read books in print form? These people turn to electronic media first. They are savvy at seeking out what interests them. What interests them is new and exciting wines which taste like they have their own personality.
Luckily our cities are full of a new breed of wine seller, independents who are adventurous enough to stock these sort of wines. What people want is to read about them. These consumers can’t afford Chateau Palmer or Rousseau Clos de Bèze, but they can afford Ar. Pe. Pe., Ganevat and Foillard. They want to be introduced to Gut Oggau and Julie Balagny, not Screaming Eagle or Grange. They also want something to blow their mind like Clos d’Ambonnay, or Cristal, but at fifty quid a bottle – Bérêche, or Cédric Bouchard, perhaps. They want somewhere they can read about these wines, not merely a commercial Chilean Chardonnay or Argentinian Malbec as a sop to their sub-£50 price range. And they can indeed read about them. Social Media, whether it be the Blogosphere, Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, is awash with wine, and the appetite for discovering wine has never been so great.
So, many wine blogs are fulfilling a need which is only satisfied occasionally in the National Press, or in wine magazines. Of course, I am far from suggesting that there aren’t any established wine writers filling these gaps. There are, and increasingly so. The more astute can see how the wine world is developing, in the same way that some of our most prestigious merchants, like Berry Brothers, have transformed and widened the range they offer. But there is an inescapable perception that many are not, or at least are not fully committed to the cause. There’s still a great deal of prestige to be gained by writing about the gods of wine, as we saw a couple of weeks ago when the great and the good flocked, brandishing their valuable invitations, to taste the new release from Krug (2002). Good luck to them. There’s less prestige to be gained by suggesting wine regions like Beaujolais, Jura, Penedes, Collio, or the less fashionable parts of California, are among the most exciting places on Planet Wine right now.
So what’s my point here? Criticise poor writing by all means – whether in print or online. Criticise my own opinion, if you will. But please don’t criticise wine bloggers as a species. There are many who have a lot to talk about, and the knowledge to do so with authority. There’s not enough work in print, and it’s hard to break into remunerative wine writing. But the reason we bloggers have an audience, and some blogs have a fantastic audience, is that we are able to service the needs of that audience without recourse to advertising, or subscriptions. This means we can write about the sort of things which no magazine wishing to attract full-page ads from major producers will cover (though there are exceptions). We can also use our detailed knowledge in specialist or niche areas to be ahead of the game in a way that the writer constrained by the annual round of Bordeaux and Burgundy tastings and visits just cannot. We can see the potential for Gruner Veltliner in Marlborough, or the chance that Savoie might just follow Jura into mainstream acceptance in a year ot two. And if our readers are excited by the wines we write about, we can tell them where to buy them.
In the next part I will tell you why I think a lot of wine criticism has become moribund. The tasting note, once the wine critic’s main tool for enlightening the masses, has surely had its day in a form which lists endless fruits and spices, wrapped in a little technical jargon. Perhaps now, we need a different way of writing about wine which will interest and engage the reader. Wine writing which, instead of instructing the neophyte as to what they will experience if they purchase any given wine, will merely inspire the reader, through the story told, to just go out and try it. In other words, adventurous wine writing to satisfy the adventurous wine consumer. This person is out there, and, with growing confidence in their own tastes, they are increasing in number. And there are already wine writers who know that.